Back to blog

You Got Zoom...Now What? How Culture Determines the Success of Remote Work in Your Business

Switching your employees to remote work isn’t easy - especially not in the face of a crisis like COVID-19 and the resulting economic strain it’s taking on businesses worldwide. But many businesses are doing it and pivoting out of necessity to keep the doors open, continue serving clients, and support their employees. But what does the success of remote work actually mean? At what point can you say, “We did it! Remote work is a success!”?


It definitely doesn’t happen with your first video conference. Or the second.


The thing is, you can download all the latest applications, build a bulletproof policy, a sound infrastructure, and spell out the new processes - but if your business doesn’t have a culture at its core that supports this new way of work, how long will it last?


In this post, I’m going to explain what culture is and why it's so important for the success of remote work in your business - now and into the future. I’ll explain some common challenges businesses face as it pertains to remote work culture, and I’ll offer some quick-fix and long-term solutions so you can transition sustainably and effectively.


Culture...what is it?

Culture is a powerful word that is frequently thrown around in the business world but is seldom truly understood. Some businesses attempt to create it by selecting a few lofty words and making them visible in the workplace for all to see and, hopefully, operate by. That second part is too often left to chance. Others have never defined it for their business — ask anyone in the organization and watch as they scramble to explain it.


This Harvard Business Review article states that, “Culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms.” It can be a bit elusive in nature because, “much of it is anchored in unspoken behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns.”


A much simpler definition is “Culture is what happens when the boss leaves the room.”

“Culture is what happens when the boss leaves the room.”


A company’s culture is what allows a shared purpose to drive progress. It’s pervasive, enduring, and implicit. And, if unmanaged, it can undermine business growth and hinder any signs of success regardless of whatever strategies a company has in place - including any remote work strategies you try to put in place.


Luckily, culture can — and should — be managed and adjusted for the betterment of the organization and its people.


If you’re one of the businesses that has had to pivot quickly to remote work because of the coronavirus pandemic, you frankly don’t have the time to do a complete overhaul of your company’s culture in the face of this already high stress situation. A culture shift requires time and focus, as it requires changing patterns and ways of doing things that are largely unconscious.


Culture and Remote Work

So if culture is a long-game, what does it have to do with solutions needed now? Let me explain.

See, regardless of what your company culture was before the crisis, the reality now is that, to get through this, you and your team are going to have to adopt some key strategies in order to make your remote team culture work.


And even though a total cultural transformation may be too much to ask right now, you can find simple ways to infuse the four key values of digital culture into your language patterns, your leadership, and your actions so they can become adopted by your team as well.


By way of background, the four key values of digital culture are:


1.) Impact

Digitally capable companies strive to change the world radically through constant innovation. They are driven by a desire to have a large impact and oftentimes have a vision greater than the company itself.


2.) Speed

Companies that have undergone a successful digital transformation move fast and iterate instead of waiting to have all the answers before acting. The inspirational phrase to “Take messy action,” applies here, as the idea is that messy action (and correcting with experimentation and learning) is better than no action at all due to fear, conformity, or rigidity.


3.) Openness

Digital organizations engage broadly with diverse sources of information and insight. The organization — and its people — are happy to share advice and information openly rather than keeping knowledge to oneself because they see the possibility for growth and innovation through collaboration.


4.) Autonomy

The cultural foundation of digitally capable organizations encourages people to have high levels of discretion to do what needs to be done. Instead of relying on formally structured coordination and policies and keeping black-and-white rigid rules, they encourage outside-the-box thinking if it means forward momentum, innovation, and expansion rooted in integrity.


If you and your team are working remotely, or you want to create more opportunities for remote work within your organization, how can you encourage and support autonomy, openness, speed and impact?


Let’s explore some small actions you can take right now that could lead to massive shifts when working remotely:


Impact: At your next business-wide meeting, get back to basics by sharing your company’s vision. Explain the big picture and share the impact your business has on its customers and the world. Inspire your employees with the fact that they are a part of something bigger — even if it’s just something big for the customer. Even the ripple effect from that could be huge.


Speed: As a leader, move and iterate quickly. Your team is looking to you for guidance and will follow you if you’re confident and clearly doing what you can to support the business and its people during this interesting time. Communication is always critical: By letting your team know that time is of the essence and that you’re also experimenting and learning through this unique time, they’ll be empathetic and grateful for your efforts - messy as they may be.


Openness: As you make the shift towards remote work, things won’t be perfect. You’ll need the openness of your team for feedback and information, and your team will need you to be open about all the latest changes, updates, wins, and challenges. Be transparent with your team and receptive to feedback. Again, as the leader, you’re at the forefront of any cultural shift, so leading by example is a must.


Autonomy: Well, you can’t control it. Your employees will be working on the couch, in the kitchen, in a home office, or maybe even in bed...and possibly still in pajamas (at least from the waist-down if there’s a video conference). If they’ve got family at home, or room-mates, or noisy pets, there likely will be distractions as they settle into this new way of work and learn to navigate the change of atmosphere. At this point, you need to trust. Trust that your team will do what needs to be done. Trust that they have the integrity to keep the momentum going even when no one’s watching. If you and your team aren’t used to this level of freedom, there are virtual ways to help hold each other accountable. Set up video calls, create schedules, pair employees with an accountability partner, or have check-ins — but just know that remote work will inevitably test how your team operates autonomously. Be patient, clear on expectations, and trusting. There will be hiccups but, ultimately, shifting to remote work will act as a massive learning experience for you and your entire team.

Common Remote Work Culture Problems

Certain aspects of your company culture may have previously made remote work difficult. For example, many established businesses have defined office hours with managers who expect to see their team as they work. And, some companies have work-at-home policies, but employees don’t use them for fear that it will hurt their advancement. Team members may not be used to effective remote check-ins and meetings, complete with the cameras turned on and background noises from home life present. Some companies have just been change-resistant in general, which makes the switch to more remote work difficult.


If you can identify with any of the above, you aren’t alone. However, those cultural values aren’t making a shift to remote work any easier for anyone. Whether you’ve been forced to deploy a remote work solution — or you’re reading this in anticipation of a shift — consider how your culture will need to change to support the advancement and evolution of your business.


You can make the shift to remote work successfully, but for it to last long-term you will need to take a closer look at the cultural foundation on which your company is laid. Otherwise, the real challenge may still be up ahead.


Remote Leadership

Through this time of crisis, your team is watching carefully to see how their leadership team responds and what measures they take. They will be using your response to this crisis as a gauge for how you will respond in tough situations going forward. They will be assessing if they are being provided new tools and training to increase their capabilities during this time, or if they are just expected to “deal with it” or “figure it out”. And when the crisis passes, they will factor these experiences into their future career choices.


Again, as a leader, you have a massive opportunity to guide your organization and its people through this tough time. Cultural shifts, even if they feel like growing pains right now, will motivate, inspire, and engage your team in ways that are sure to make a positive impact on your business now and in the future.


Jason Korman, the CEO of GapingVoid, offers another interesting definition of the term “culture” within organizations. He defines it as, “A management system; a designable method of informing the beliefs, mindsets, and mental models that will drive operational excellence.” As a leader, this management system is your method for leading the organization through these tough times and beyond.


Remote Work into the Future

Is remote work a quick fix right now based on necessity? Do you plan to nix just as soon as everyone can work together again in-person?


Let me offer you a new perspective.


What if remote work is something that you can offer to your employees long into the future, even if just partially or part-time? What could that do for employee morale, efficiency, and innovation within your company - not to mention your bottom line?


According to this Forbes article, the “remote work revolution has a case for change.” Research shows workplace flexibility boosts bottom lines in 5 core categories:


  1. Productivity: Remote workers are an average of 35-40% more productive than their office counterparts, and have measured an output increase of at least 4.4%.

  2. Performance: With stronger autonomy, workers produce results with 40% fewer quality defects.

  3. Engagement: Higher productivity and performance combine to create stronger engagement, or in other words, 41% lower absenteeism.

  4. Retention: 54% of employees say they would change jobs for one that offered them more flexibility, which results in an average of 12% turnover reduction after a remote work agreement is offered.

  5. Profitability: Organizations save an average of $11,000 per year per part-time remote worker, or 21% higher profitability.


By looking at the data, companies who prioritize remote work as a strategy to enhance their top objectives in this new decade are sure to get ahead - and now’s the best time to take that first leap.


I encourage you to see remote work — and an updated remote company culture — as a long-term strategy, not just a short-term solution. As you work through the must-dos and the right-nows, keep your eyes open to the possibility that this shift towards remote work can trigger a new normal for your business that will make it even better and more resilient than it was before. And although in times of crisis leaders and organizations need to think about survival first, use this experience as a way to adapt to survive...and grow to thrive.


Stay safe, stay positive. This too shall pass.